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How to effectively deliver bad news

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read

Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news; however, it is essential that it’s done if a business is to operate effectively. Here are some tips on how best to approach these situations.


According to communication specialist Leah Mether, there is no “right” way to deliver bad news. However, there are a few basic principles that can assist:

  • Inoculate first: Let the person know it may be a tough or uncomfortable conversation at the start. You may even say, “I’ve got some bad news”. Inoculating provides space (even a second or two) for the person to steel themselves for what is to come rather than be blindsided.
  • Give it to them straight: Explain the facts in a simple and clear way.
  • Explain the why: Help people understand the context in which the news sits or why a decision has been made.
  • Empathise: Acknowledge; don’t dismiss the person’s feelings and emotions by using “I” statements, such as: “I appreciate this is very hard to hear.” “I understand that this is frustrating.” “I want to acknowledge that some of you are really angry.” Hold space for their reaction.

Ms Mether also encourages people to understand the “who, what, when, where, how” of the conversation before it takes place:

  • Who should be in the conversation, and what is their communication style?
  • What is your key message?
  • When is the best time to deliver the news?
  • Where is the best place to deliver the news?
  • How should you deliver the news? Should it be face-to-face, over the phone, or (rarely) in an email?

Three major components of dealing with bad news are trust, clarity, and transparency. Employees need to feel at ease if the message is to be delivered effectively, which is where these elements come in.

Ms Mether continued: “When delivering bad news, providing clarity is paramount. As Brené Brown says, ‘clear is kind.’ Even if people don’t like your message, if they understand what it is, why it’s needed, and have it delivered in a frank, transparent, proactive and empathetic way, they are more likely to get on board.”

“Avoid spin and clever messaging that attempts to disguise harsh realities with false promises. Embrace plain speak. Keep your communication simple, authentic and transparent. Transparency goes beyond honesty; it means sharing the truth that you believe needs to be known without being asked because it’s the right thing to do. While your transparency may initially be unwelcome if it’s not what people want to hear, it will build trust and shape how people perceive you. Don’t wait for questions and concerns to be raised; proactively communicate your message.”

Once the bad news has been delivered, support must be continued to show you care. Empathy plays a key role in the aftermath of doing so.

“Delivering bad news shouldn’t be like throwing a grenade where you lob a bomb and then run, leaving the recipients to deal with the carnage. This is the time for courageous, empathetic, human-centred leadership,” explained Ms Mether.

“Hold space for people’s reactions in the moment and make sure you leave time for them to ask questions. Give them time and space to process and provide an opportunity for them to come back and ask more questions – whether in person, via email, or by another means. And finally, follow up. Delivering bad news should not be a one-off conversation. Check in with your people. Schedule one-on-one coaching conversations to see how they are travelling and ask how you can support them.”

She concluded: “While the news may be bad, how you communicate and lead your people through it can make all the difference to their experience.”

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.